Sunday, 9 October 2011

Making free knowledge expensive: Wikipedia to Amazon scam

You can buy from a rapidly growing collection of works of all kinds on Amazons various online stores; books in print, or for the Kindle. Publications from major publishing houses, minor ones, and works that are self-published.

But, as with many things in life, where an opportunity presents itself, there's someone out there ready to exploit it. Copying free stuff from online - that other people have written - and turning it into a book for selling isn't new; here's an example from a few years back (see the reviews).

And so we have the "author" (I'll return to that) who cuts and pastes material from Wikipedia pages into a single document to form a "book", which he or she sells through services such as Amazon.

Here's one spotted by David McMenemy - the "books" (cough) of Kevin Roebuck.

Let's take one book at random that you can look inside (you'll need to log on to your Amazon account). This one:

Hypervisor: High-impact Technology - What You Need to Know: Definitions, Adoptions, Impact, Benefits, Maturity, Vendors by Kevin Roebuck.

It's £39.97 and, interestingly, is a paperback published on "26 May 2011".

Hmmm. So, it should be up to the minute. Let's have a look at page 221, which is about the PearPC:

Extract from "Hypervision"

The full sized version on the screen is here.

But ... this text on Wikipedia looks strangely similar:

Wikipedia page on the PearPC

And if you go back in various revisions on Wikipedia - this article started in 2004, it gets even more similar.

Yes. The book is a compilation of Wikipedia pages. Old wikipedia pages at that. Despite the book being labelled "26 May 2011".

How does the author get away with it? Well, there's this disclaimer in the front where he acknowledges that the stuff has come from elsewhere, and may be out of date:

Extract from "Hypervision"

I'm not sure at all that this makes it legal. It gives the impression it's put in there to mitigate any comeback from Wikipedia, and/or to sate Amazon if they are alerted to this issue.

This whole think is probably annoying to many people. To the original authors. To the authors of updates of the Wikipedia pages, and to Wikipedia people trying to encourage people to use Wikipedia (unless this is actually approved by Wikipedia - see next section). To the many legitimate authors and publication houses who are trying to get their works promoted and sold in a rapidly crowded online marketplace. To people who have spent money on these books, then found they could get more up to date versions of the knowledge online, and for free.


I started to read about the copyright stuff, but quickly grew weary. Quick questions; anyone have quick answers?

1. Is this actually legal?

2. Do the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia, or the authors of the content in these books know about this? If they do, is there an implicit or explicit approval?

3. How much money do the Wikimedia Foundation get per copy sold? How much has been donated so far?

A few thoughts

This should not stop or deter the editing of Wikipedia because of things like this. The problem is NOT with wikipedia. It's with the opportunist compiler (author is definitely not the right word) and the publisher of the compilation.

Also, this doesn't show or prove that self-publishing is always bad. There is good self-publishing. And bad, often horrendously priced, non-fiction works from publishing houses.

However, this does show that selecting material for purchase has to be careful - and in Amazon's favour, the search inside option means the contents can be checked. Other factors, such as the absence of independent reviews, should trigger a few warnings.

And it also shows that Amazon need better controls over the content of their online book stores. As sometimes, like in this case, it just appears to be a free for all. This is not the first time Wikipedia content has problematically appeared on Amazon, but this particular example appears to be more blatant.

Knowledge should be free. That's not the same as free knowledge that is out of date should be repackaged and sold at a huge profit margin, which goes to not the knowledge creators but someone who knows how to cut, paste and publish.

Also see: Shovelware

Update. Seems to be legal(ish). Sadly. Add to the long list of reasons why libraries need professional librarians with contemporary skills, so they don't get ripped off in spending money on this.

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